The book of Jeremiah is one of the longest books of the Old Testament. It is also one of the most thrilling. In this article, we wish to give the reader an “Introduction” to this remarkable sacred narrative.
The author of this book is Jeremiah, a prophet (cf. Dan. 9:2; Mt. 2:17) of the city of Anathoth, a priestly community (cf. Josh. 21:18) about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. His father’s name was Hilkiah. Some suggest that this was the high priest who found the copy of the law (2 Kgs. 22:4) in the ruins of the temple (Smith, 311-12). Most commentators do not make that connection.
The meaning of his name is uncertain; various suggestions have been: “Jehovah establishes,” “Jehovah exalts,” and “Jehovah casts down.” Jeremiah had no immediate family; in fact, he was the only prophet of the Old Testament whom God forbade to marry (16:1,2).
“Jeremiah is an intensely human personality, a man whom we can understand and love, and yet a person endowed with such mysterious power from on high that we at times are overawed by his grandeur. Jeremiah, so humanly weak, and yet so divinely firm; his love so humanly tender, and at the same time so divinely holy; his eyes streaming with tears at beholding the affliction about to come upon his people, yet sparkling with fiery indignation against their sins and abominations; his lips overflowing with sympathy for the daughter of Zion, only to pronounce upon her almost in the same breath the judgment and condemnation she so fully deserved. Truly so remarkable and powerful a personality, at the same time so lovable, that we cannot fail to recognize in him an instrument especially chosen and prepared by the God of grace and strength and wisdom” (Laetsch, 23).
The bulk of the prophetic message is directed to the southern kingdom of Judah—though sometimes referred to as “Israel”—with its capital city, Jerusalem (chapters 2-45). Samaria and the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria almost a century earlier. Additionally, miscellaneous oracles are aimed at a few other ancient nations (cf. 1:5). Chapters 46-51 address several of Judah’s pagan contemporaries, e.g., Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Amon, Edom, Syria, Babylon, etc.
The Historical Time Frame
Jeremiah prophesied during the administrations of five of Judah’s kings:
- Josiah (639-608 B.C.)—31 years
- Jehoahaz (608 B.C.)—3 months
- Jehoiakim (608-597 B.C.)—11 years
- Johoiachin (597 B.C.)—3 months
- Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.)—11 years
The prophet commenced his labor in the 13th year of Josiah (626 B.C.); he concluded his ministry in Judea when the temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. Thus, his work in the southern kingdom spanned approximately forty years. However, he prophesied periodically even after the fall of Jerusalem. The last date mentioned in the book comes thirty-seven years following the capture of Jehoiachin (597 B.C.), thus in 560 B.C. (52:31). This is twenty-six years beyond Jerusalem’s fall. If chapter 52 was added by Jeremiah—though not authored by him (Young, 255), his career could have spanned some sixty-six years.
The Conditions of the Time
When Judah’s good king Hezekiah died, he was succeeded by his son, Manasseh. Under Manasseh, the nation became engrossed in idolatry. Baal was worshipped, pagan alters were built, children were sacrificed to Moloch, worship of the stars was instituted, etc. The prophets were persecuted. Tradition has it that Isaiah was sawn asunder in this era (cf. Heb. 11:37). It was a very bad time.
During Manasseh’s administration the people of Judah “did more evil” than their heathen neighbors (2 Chron. 33:9). Manasseh was taken as a prisoner to Assyria; there, he came to his senses and repented of his evil. When he returned to Palestine, he tried to undo the spiritual damage he had done, but he could not stem the tide of idolatry. When the ruler died, he was succeeded by his son Amon who quickly re-instituted the wicked practices of his father’s early days.
Amon was followed by his son Josiah, Judah’s last good king. Josiah began to seek Jehovah when he was but a lad of sixteen years (2 Chron. 34:3). By the time he was twenty, he sought to purge the land of idolatry. One of his projects was to repair the temple. During this enterprise, a copy of the sacred law was discovered. When the king noted the contrast between the pure religion described in the Mosaic law, and the corrupt practices of the current Hebrews, he initiated a great reformation, which, however noble, was but superficial and temporal. The nation was on a headlong course of destruction; it was just a matter of time. It was during this era—in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign—that Jeremiah was called to his great prophetic ministry.
Purpose of the Book
The basic thrust of Jeremiah’s ministry is two-fold. Initially, he seeks to bring his people to a state of repentance (cf. 7:2-7). If Judah will turn back to God, she can avoid the horrible destruction that looms like a dark cloud on the horizon (the Babylonian invasion). Eventually, though, it became apparent that the people had no intention of abandoning their apostasy. Accordingly, it was Jeremiah’s sad task to warn them of the approaching destruction (see 21:1-10). He informed them that this catastrophe was a judgment from God. They must submit to it and take their punishment. It was this message that provoked livid anger in the Jews. Jeremiah was viewed as a traitor and persecuted more intensely than any other Hebrew prophet ever had been.
Divisions of the Book
The book is a collection of Jeremiah’s prophecies. Scholars outline the book differently, but the main segments appear to be:
- Prophecies concerning Judah and Jerusalem (1-25).
- Biographical data relating to Jeremiah, and prophecies of redemption in the coming Messianic age (26-45).
- Oracles regarding the nations (46-51).
- A historical appendix (52).
Chronology of the Book
A careful consideration of the material within the book reveals that events, prophecies, etc. are not always set forth chronologically. For example, chapters 21 and 24 come from the time of Zedekiah’s reign (597-586 B.C.), while chapter 25 is related to Jehoiakim’s administration (608-597 B.C.). D.J. Wiseman offers the following table, suggesting that some material might be arranged according to the administrations of certain rulers (817). This involves some speculation.
- Josiah (1:1-19; 2:1-6; 30; 7:1-10:25; 18:1-20:18)
- Jehoahaz (none)
- Josiah or Jehoiakim (11:1-17:27)
- Jehoiakim (25-26; 35-36; 45-48)
- Jehoiachin (31:15-27)
- Zedekiah (21-24; 27-34; 37-39; 49-51)
- Gedaliah (& Egypt) (40-44)
Why is there a lack of chronological sequence? Some suggest the materials of this book were circulated originally in the form of separate scrolls, each of which illustrated a particular teaching. Later, it is contended, these scrolls were assembled to constitute the current book of Jeremiah (Deere, 898). On the other hand, some argue that Jeremiah himself arranged the materials, not in a sequential fashion, but in a logically topical way. Professor Charles Dyer has argued this case in his discussion of this book (Dyer, 1128). It is important to observe, however, that the arrangement of the book does not at all affect the question of inspiration. The task of the commentator is to deal with the book in the order given without being preoccupied with rearranging the text (Feinberg, 367). The liberal view—that the book is a collection from various authors, later assembled by an editor (Ash, 22ff)—should be rejected.
Features of the Book
The book of Jeremiah has several significant features that are worthy of note:
Over and over again the prophet stresses that the nation of Judah is a “backsliding” people (13 times). The Hebrews have “committed iniquity” (or sin, transgression, etc.—53 times) against Jehovah. She should thus “return” (47 times) to the Lord. Because of their sins, the people of Judah would be “scattered” (14 times) and held “captive,” or be in “captivity” (51 times) by the Babylonians. The Babylonians are referred to more times in the book of Jeremiah than in the balance of the Bible combined.
This is a powerful book of prophecy. For example: The seventy years of Babylonian captivity are foretold (25:11). But the captivity will not be a “full end” of Judah (5:18); rather, the Jews will return from Babylon (29:10-14). Eventually, mighty Babylon herself will fall (25:12-14). The “Righteous Branch” (the Messiah) will come to earth (23:5), and provide a “new covenant” (31:31-34) by means of which all nations may potentially be saved.
Jeremiah is the most persecuted prophet of the Bible. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter (11:18ff); his brethren dealt treacherously with him (12:6); he was confronted by false prophets (14:13); his brethren cursed him (15:10); he was smitten, put in stocks, and denounced (20:1ff); his heart was broken (23:9); he was seized and threatened with death (26:8,24); his teaching was opposed (28:1ff; 29:1ff); he was imprisoned (32:2,3); he was pursued (36:26); he was beaten and imprisoned (37:15); he was thrown into a dungeon (38:6); he was bound in chains (40:1); he was falsely accused (43:2); he was taken to Egypt (43:6,7). Tradition says he was stoned in Egypt.
Nature of Inspiration
The book of Jeremiah testifies quite eloquently to the biblical doctrine of inspiration. First, Jeremiah himself reflects a very high regard for earlier biblical documents. For instance, some sixty-six passages from the book of Deuteronomy are echoed in about eighty-six references in this book (Feinberg, 368). Second, this narrative itself claims prophetic inspiration over and over again. “In Jeremiah there are 151 clearly marked prophecies commencing with the prophetic formula, ‘The word of the Lord came.’” (Boyd, 286). Third, he is designated as “Jeremiah the prophet” in the New Testament (Mt. 2:17; 27:9—for a discussion of the accuracy of this latter reference, see “Did Matthew Blunder?”). The writer of Hebrews cites from Jeremiah 31:31ff and attributes the declaration to God (8:8). The Greek Text of the United Bible Societies lists about ninety-six concurrences between the book of Jeremiah and the New Testament (Aland, Black, Metzger, & Wikgren, 904).
Practical Lessons from the Book
The things written aforetime were written for our learning and admonition (Rom. 15:4). We would thus expect that there would be many enduring truths in the book of Jeremiah that can serve us well today (cf. Yates, 148,149).
The book stresses the omniscience of God. In his foreknowledge, Jehovah knew the character of the prophet, and his fitness for the job, even before he was formed in the womb. The creator will always respect our freedom of choice; yet, he knows. He is God!
God Empowers the Servant
When one is willing to be used in the service of Jehovah, God can take his weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Jeremiah was a timid, sensitive youth who initially shrunk from the awesome responsibility with which he was challenged. But he became one of the Lord’s greatest, most courageous men.
Remember Your Vows
When one forsakes his covenant vows to God, and pursues religious activity not sanctioned by him, he has committed a grievous evil. He must abandon the false and return to the true.
God Hates the Superficial
External religion, without true devotion of heart, is worthless. Shallow formalism makes the Lord sick.
Genuine repentance requires a cessation of evil and a turning to God. Either one without the other is void.
The High Price of Sin
Sin extracts a high price. It ruins internally, externally, and eternally.
Jehovah Will Be Victorious
God’s righteous cause will eventually triumph over evil. Truth pressed to the ground will rise again.
Jesus Is the Only Hope
The only hope for the world is through the Messiah and his new covenant system.
Those who uncompromisingly proclaim God’s truth, refusing to condone evil, will suffer persecution.
Judgment Day Will Come
Every man will ultimately have to stand before the Judge of the Universe and give an account for his life.
Jeremiah and Archaeology
Several archaeological discoveries bear upon the book of Jeremiah. A few examples will suffice at this point.
Letters from Lachish
Between 1935-38, twenty-one pottery fragments (called ostraca), were discovered at the site of ancient Lachish (thirty miles SW of Jerusalem). Lachish was one of the last three cities to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Jer. 34:7). These potsherds were in a small guard-room located outside the city gate. Inscribed with Hebrew script reflecting the writing of Jeremiah’s time, they are dated from the autumn of 589 B.C., having been found in an ash layer—the remains of Nebuchadnezzar’s burning of the city. They are thus contemporary with Jeremiah. Some of the fragments represent letters written by an outpost soldier to his commander at Lachish.
Letter VI complains about certain princes who “weaken our hands” by their defeatist actions. This is almost identical to the charge that some were lodging against Jeremiah:
“He weakeneth the hands of the men of war that remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, in speaking such words unto them, for this man seeketh not the welfare of this people, but the hurt” (Jer. 38:4).
Letter IV states that “we are watching for the signals of Lachish....” Compare this with Jeremiah 6:1, where the same word for “signal” is employed. Letter III contains a reference to a certain “prophet” who had proclaimed a message of “Beware.” Some have speculated that this may be a reference to Jeremiah, but the identification is not certain. The texts of these communications are found in Pritchard (212-214).
Confirmation of Gedaliah’s Administration
Following the fall of Jerusalem, Gedaliah, grandson of Shaphan (Josiah’s scribe), was appointed governor over Judea by Nebuchadnezzar. His administration was centered at Mizpah and was short-lived; he was assassinated (2 Kgs. 25:22-26; Jer. 40:5-41:8). In the ruins of Lachish, a jar handle was found which read: “Gedaliah who is over the house.” This may have been the Gedaliah of the book of Jeremiah (see Lewis, 113,114).
In the British Museum there is a small stone seal, dating from the 6th century B.C., that contains the inscription: “Belonging to Hannaniah, son of Gedaliah.” It is also possible that this is a reference to the Judean governor (Mitchell, 76).
A seal impression at Mizpah bore the inscription “Jaazaniah, servant of the king.” Scholars believe that this is the same Jaazaniah who met with Gedaliah at Mizpah (cf. Jer. 40:8; see Cornfield, 177).
Treatment of Jehoiachin
Jeremiah mentions that Jehoiachin, king of Judah, was a captive in Babylon, and that he was treated “kindly” (Jer. 52:31-34). Clay tablets found in the ruins of ancient Babylon confirm that Jehoiachin was treated well by Chaldean officials. He is referred to as “Yaukin, king of Judah,” and a list of the provisions (e.g., oil and barley) for the former ruler and his family are detailed.
For further study of the book of Jeremiah see the author’s book “Jeremiah and Lamentations” available from “Courier Publications”.